Sunday, February 07, 2016

A Jim Donn-dy of a Weekend

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., February 7, 2016—Saturday at Gulfstream Park, a horse called Mshawish beat everything thrown his way.

• He beat the handicapper who assigned him a pound less than a stablemate who has never come close to winning a career Grade 1.

• He beat Keen Ice, the only horse to defeat the 2015 Horse of a Lifetime, the field’s only other Grade 1 titlist.

• He beat the odds of becoming one of those rare animals to earn Grade 1 status on both turf and dirt, like he's some kind of 21st Century John Henry or something.

• He beat the bettors, including this one, who disrespected him at a dismissive 9-2, as if Pletcher and Velazquez were strangers to the bright lights.

• In taking command in the shadow of the high-beam lighting at the finish line, he even beat the darkness, winning the last event on a 13-race program in what his trainer thought was the performance of the six-year-old's lifetime.

Anyone familiar with Todd Pletcher understands that he knows his horses and the competition very well, and when talking about either he’s quite correct, politically and otherwise.

But even Pletcher somewhat lowered expectations this week on one the barn’s stable leaders, which made yesterday’s nine furlong Donn score in 1:47.89 so gratifying:

"I loved the way he finished up at a mile and an eighth," Pletcher said. "That was the one thing we were looking to prove--that he could stay a mile and an eighth on the dirt. I actually thought he ran the best race of his career, really.”

Meanwhile, at Gulfstream’s sister track out West, an undefeated champion with nothing to prove, Songbird, was devastating in her three-year-old debut, winning the one mile Las Virgenes by 6-1/2 eased lengths after first opening 10 at the top of the lane. And jockey Mike Smith never once sat down in the irons.

To answer the burning question on the mind of most fans, owner Rick Porter said: “It would be nice to win the Kentucky Derby, but I'd like to do it with a nice colt... I don't like the point system. We'd have to run in the Santa Anita Derby… I think it'd be great for your ego, but the smart move is to stay on the path we're on to the [Kentucky] Oaks."

"At least now we got a race in her and we can try to make some more plans. We want to run here at Santa Anita.” trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. "What we do in between now and the Santa Anita Oaks, I don't know."

Rightfully, that answer is anything that Hollendorfer wants his filly to do.

But, of course, there’s another reason why there will be no Derby run for Songbird. The elephant in Porter's shedrow is Eight Belles.

Immediately after the Las Virgenes, HRI colleague Tom Jicha put Songbird’s performance in proper perspective. “Three of the fillies behind her are now pointing for the Kentucky Derby.”

Nothing that happened elsewhere in her division Saturday turned heads as G1-winnng Nickname, one of the better East/Midwest-based fillies, was upset in the Martha Washington, albeit in a strong debut performance.

Upsetter Marquee Miss is a nicely developing filly that benefited from a perfect trip and very confident handling from Channing Hill. Third finisher Doradansa lengthened stride very nicely at the end following a troubled break and, like all three, rates to improve.

However, as the legendary Charles Hatton once wrote of Secretariat, as far as Songbird is concerned, her only frame of reference is herself.

Songbird's victory in advance of the Donn began quite a day for her sire, Medaglia d’Oro, whose get also finished 1-2 in the Donn as the durably gutsy runnerup, Valid, gave yet another hickory hard effort.

What Mshawish has done from 5 to 6 is go from very good to extraordinary. "We'll go to Dubai and make a decision but hopefully it will be the World Cup," said Pletcher. For that, Mshawish will have to step it up again; Frosted and California Chrome are already there, waiting.

"The speed was holding pretty good today," explained Javier Castellano of the vanquished 121-pound highweighted favorite who earned the ‘honor’ by virtue of his Grade 1 Travers defeat of American Pharoah.

"But I liked the way he [ran] today. He passed the wire galloping out strong and passed the other horses. I couldn't pull him up. A mile and a quarter will be good for him."

Not to mention that Keen Ice spotted the competition a tad more than five lengths while trying to run down rivals that ran a final five furlongs in under a minute. After spotting the leaders an easy pace, Keen Ice ran his final five furlongs in 58 4/5.

Widely circulated that the Donn was intended as a World Cup prep, Dale Romans reinforced the notion that a trainer’s win percentage is far less important than hitting the intended mark. Keen Ice will be joining Mshawish in Dubai providing both exit their races well.

Some of the uncertainty regarding Mshawish’s next start, in the World Cup or Dubai Turf, doubtlessly involves the competition as the waters will get a lot deeper on March 26.

Frosted set a track record in his four-year-old debut in Thursday’s prep at Meydan Race Course beneath a new rider, William Buick, and without the benefit of performance enhancing Lasix.

Then, too, there’s the highly anticipated season’s debut of California Chrome, last year’s World Cup runner-up. The handsome chestnut is looking and training extraordinarily well for his return.

Mor Spirit made excellent three-year-old debut, winning the Robert B. Lewis Memorial by a measured-off 1-1/2 lengths in 1:43.21 beneath an ice chilly Gary Stevens, defeating a very game, stalking-throughout Uncle Lino The win was Bob Baffert's sixth in the Lewis…

The first three finishers in the G2 San Antonio ran very well. Hoppertunity stalked three wide outside a rival throughout, rallied very wide into the stretch, and was being out-finished by Imperative who tipped wide after straightening into the stretch only to re-rally to get up by a nose between rivals.

As it was run, Donworth, making his four-year-old debut for new trainer Doug O’Neill might have been best, stalking a loose leader through then held very gamely to the finish, beaten two noses. He re-broke after the finish and was in front again on the gallop-out by mid-clubhouse turn…

Lady Shipman was impressive as usual, making her four-year-old debut for new trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Rated inside by Irad Ortiz Jr. while going head to head down the backstretch over ground that had a good amount of cut to it, she opened the lead with authority in the stretch and drew. Next stop, Dubai for last year’s Eclipse Sprint finalist…

Tommy Macho gave a dazzling performance with a monstrous mid-to-late move, winning the G3 Hal’s Hope in 1:33.53. Next Stop? Wherever Todd Pletcher decides, most likely the Gulfstream Park Handicap next month. Pletcher’s Stanford did most of the dirt work in his season’s debut and was an excellent second; great race to build on…

After Joel Rosario negotiated a laughably half-mile of 48.35 over the good turf, Tammy the Torpedo finished up with five furlongs in 59.70 to win the G3 Suwannee River over season’s debuting Rainha Da Bateria, sure to benefit from the run. Chad Brown trained winner looks like a Grade 1 filly waiting to happen…

It’s about time that the crowd, author included, recognized that Lukes Alley, gaining his first Grade 1 victory at 6, is a very good horse. Hadn’t realized that the Josie Carroll trained Gulfstream Park Turf winner, given perfect handling by Paco Lopez, has not finished worse than second since Oct. 26, 2013. The winner was getting five pounds from the seasonal debuting 122-pound highweight, The Pizza Man, absolutely needing of a run.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Star Is Born

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., January 31, 2016—It is way, way too early to start making comparisons. After all, one was a homebred, the other a $2.2 million yearling. But at this stage, it’s nice for racing fans to dream a little.

Two “horses of a lifetime” back to back? Of course, it would be foolish to think that Mohaymen would be in the same league as American Pharoah.

Or is it?

Now we’re not comparing one to the other, not at this stage. That would be unreasonable and unfair. But there is one basis for comparison: After their season’s debuts, they remained undefeated at 3 and looked invincible.

After losing his juvenile debut sprinting, American Pharoah took his undefeated record through the Triple Crown all the way to Saratoga, where another modern Triple Crown legend, the mighty Secretariat, got beat.

“Did he take your breath away today?” Rick Nichols, Vice President and General Manager of Shadwell Farm, was asked post-race. Nicholls has been picking out racing prospects for Sheikh Hamdan for three decades.

The look on Nichols’ face was that of a man to whom that thought seemingly never occurred. The manner of victory, perhaps, but never the outcome, Nicholls later admitting to “just chills up and down the back.”

And trainer Kiaran McLaughlin? “When you’re 1-5 ($2.60), you expect to win but yes, he did take my breath away.”

McLaughlin’s and most everyone else’s.
Nichols had a $2 million budget to spend on the gray, athletic son of Tapit, later to be named Mohaymen. “I have to admit when the bidding reached $1.8 million, I looked down at my catalogue to make sure we were bidding on the right horse,” he joked.

“Over the years we’ve bought plenty of horses that didn’t turn out, so it’s nice when your opinion is vindicated.” After the Holy Bull, figure Team Mohaymen has a colt worth double that amount, probably more, when he extended his undefeated career to 4-for-4.

Not that there wasn’t a brief anxious moment. “It looked like on paper that he might break and be on the lead,” said McLaughlin, “but when that didn’t happen I was a little nervous into and around the first turn.”

A relaxed Mohaymen was tardy coming out of the gate but after that hiccup, “all went great. I was real glad to see he did everything right,” McLaughlin said.

“It’s a real pleasure to have such a star in the barn. I’ve trained for Sheikh Hamdan and Shadwell for 23 years, and I trained the mother [Justwhistledixie], so this is pretty special.

And so is the colt; very special, indeed.

Like many babies, Mohaymen’s inexperience showed in his second start at 2 when he was difficult pre-race and balked at being loaded into the gate. But following the Nashua win, he was schooled and was a gentleman when he returned for the Remsen.

Still, yesterday he was fresh and with young horses returning from a layup there’s always some concern. “We had the pony in the paddock just in case,” admitted McLaughlin, but the colt was very composed, almost quiet.

“Yes, he was quiet,” the trainer said, and Mohaymen remained that way as he calmly walked into slip #2. So quiet, in fact, that he came out of there a step slowly.

With no speed on paper, the pace was extremely slow to develop as longshot Perfect Saint walked away on the lead.

Sensing this, Johnny Velazquez, aboard Champagne winner and second favorite Greenpointcrusader, seized the opportunity and joined the leader early and through a glacial half mile in 49.06. Then things got interesting.

Junior Alvarado guided Mohaymen between the leaders: “Johnny left me a little room but sometimes that can be a trap,” Alvarado explained, but his rival “never came inside. I was on the best horse and thinking it’s time to make my own move. After that it was pretty much over.”

Not that observers could tell at that juncture. The two favorites dispatched the leader, racing away approaching the final bend and they raced as a team with Mohaymen on the inside, Velazquez knowing that Greenpointcrusader had to stay with him, which he did.

Until headstretch.

When Alvarado dropped his hands soon after entering the straight, Mohaymen created separation instantly, leaving Greenpointcrusader--and the strong late-running Fellowship--in his 3-1/2 length wake.

“He did the same thing in the Remsen,” McLaughlin observed. “He beat a couple of nice horses in there and finished very strong. We don’t need to see anything different.”

Provided all goes well, McLaughlin and Nicholls will stick with their original plan, providing Sheikh Hamdan approves. “I think he did it pretty much in hand,” the trainer said. “We just think more experience is fine. I don’t think he needs to skip races.”

Translation: the Fountain of Youth. February 27, is probably next.

Speaking of translations, there seems to be some controversy as to the meaning of the Arabic name. Both McLaughlin and Nicholls believe it means dominance or dominating. But according to, Mohaymen means Protector.

When appraised of the difference, Nicholls stood there a moment and said: “It just might mean Derby winner.”

Nicholls just might be right.

BETS N’ PIECES: The trainer of the top two Holy Bull finishers had nothing but praise for each other’s horses.

“He’s a very, very good three-year-old and looks like the Derby favorite,” said Dominic Schettino, trainer of the runnerup. “He came back great but as I told you last week, we’d keep our options open after the Holy Bull...”

“He ran very well,” said McLaughlin of yesterday’s rival. “He looked great in the paddock; he’s a nice horse.”

Greenpointcrusader, in fact, is a very nice horse, beaten 3-1/2 lengths despite the fact he was forced out of his game by his freshness and lack of pace, Velazquez not taking away his position which came easily.

But the fact is he could not match strides after Alvarado gave the winner his cue….

Dale Romans reserved Cherry Wine from the Holy Bull following that colt’s dominating allowance win here earlier in favor of better spacing going into the Fountain of Youth.

After yesterday, Romans may be sneaking peaks at condition books from the Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park. Romans, however, always has his sights on the big picture and is not afraid to get beat along the way…

Awesome Banner remained awesome, extending his undefeated career to three, adding the G2 Swale to his G3 score in the Hutcheson earlier this month. This brilliant colt might try two turns next, trainer Stanley Gold keeping an eye on the Fountain of Youth.

“I honestly don’t know what’s next,” Gold said post-race. “Mile and a sixteenth will be no problem for him, a mile and a sixteenth is not a mile and quarter. If you want to think bigger, you have to start going long and getting [Derby] points.”

Two more extremely worthy performances this weekend: Shagaf won a Friday allowances going a mile very impressively for Chad Brown, who said after that the colt needs experience and the Fountain of Youth was under consideration.

But that was 24 hours before the Holy Bull--and both are owned by Shadwell.

An undefeated filly was always impressive yesterday. In going 3-for-3, Cathryn Sophia, broke slowly, was covered up on the fence for the first time in her career, was steered into the 3 path entering the stretch with no urging from Joel Rosario.

When Rosario asked her shortly thereafter, she accelerated dramatically. “She’ll probably break a lot sharper, leave there running next time,” said trainer John Servis.

When asked about the Davona Dale, Feb. 27: “I think she’ll handle a mile well. The way she did it today, she did it like a good filly.”

Sunny Ridge
, winner of the Withers at Aqueduct, never fails to run his race. Stalking a slow pace over a surface more demanding than Gulfstream's, he stalked from close range throughout then showed his class to prevail in a long, hard drive. Dennis Drazin's sophomore is sure to benefit from the effort. Trainer Jason Servis said that the Gotham very likely will be up next.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

BAFFERT: “Horses Are Like Songs”

HALLANDALE BEACH, January 24, 2016--As a prelude to All-American Pharoah Night at the Eclipse Awards, ThoroFan, a Saratoga-based grassroots organization devoted to present and future racing fans, held its fourth annual party.

For the work ThoroFan--a not-for-profit entity whose mission is to give fans a voice and grow the sport--tries to do, their event should have been better supported.

The lesson here may be that converting casual sports fans into racing fans may be more important than horseplayers realize. The Fan of the Year as recognized by Horse Racing Nation, Erica Harris, is a young Nebraskan who doesn’t gamble.

Harris pays her way to major events all over the country. This year she is planning to attend her 10th Kentucky Derby. Why? Because she loves it; the atmosphere, watching horses get saddled, the warm ups and race.

Imagine that?

The group also recognized Bob Baffert for his support of Thoroughbred aftercare and Tom Durkin for his life’s work, especially appropriate in light of the legendary announcer’s farewell salute to racing fans in his retirement speech at Saratoga Race Course last summer.

Baffert’s quote at the Thoro Fan ceremony reflects the emotion he felt when he first visited his retired dual classics winner, Silver Charm. “You never forget where you were when you hear a certain song; it’s the same with horses. It just sticks with you.”

His observation was one of the best things I’ve ever heard to describe the love that the game conjures up. Interesting, too, how a near death experience and “Grand Slam” moments can shape one’s perspective.

The point in recalling all this is that, even a week later, the warmth of people tethered to Thoroughbreds still resonates when experienced in close quarters. Frankey’s, Stronach’s upscale sports bar on the Gulfstream Park campus, turned out to be an ideal, intimate venue.

A secondary point is that it lifted the spirit of this horseplayer about the state of the game, even if the feeling may be only temporary.

The talent this game attracts; from hands-on practitioners, to owners, to fans who appreciate majesty and enjoy using their brains to make money by solving equine puzzles can be, while not suited to every taste, inspirational.

If only racetrack executives did more to care for all the above by giving those invested in the game a fairer shake; enforcing rules instead of burying the truth about how things really are, instead of scapegoating the few. And taking better of the customer via sensible pricing.

Eclipse weekend was a delightful respite from the day-to-day tedium, from myopic, bottom-line-centric backside-coverers who populate this industry. Of course, it’s only corporate life in America where companies who provide livelihoods are considered boardroom failures if profits down grow year over every year. The energy Eclipse weekend was palpably upbeat--and that was nice for a change.

Celebration is not just chest-thumping; it’s important. It inspires hope in a game of tremendous highs and lows. That was a prominent theme when Jim Rome spoke at the Ownerview conference during Eclipse Week.

Rome referenced the joy that he and his partners experienced by sharing the exploits of the amazing Shared Belief, in training one day and gone the next.

I can’t imagine still being so upbeat in light of that kind of tragedy. Yet the sportscaster still had it right when he said that in this game the highs are higher than the lows are low. I’m sure every true racetracker agrees, the reason we all keep coming back for more.

As for the Eclipses themselves, the three voting organizations awarded Eclipse statuettes to the most deserving. I voted for a few who didn’t make the grade but that’s beside the point: “The wisdom of the many” won out.

While running very long, the ceremony was not insufferable, even as some presenters took as long or longer than some of the awardees for whom last Saturday night was intended.

The tone of the night was pitch perfect, with humorous, entertaining and poignant video presentations, packaged in a nicely produced program. If only racing could raise its profile once again, the show might one day make worthy television fare.

The racing presented at Gulfstream Park and elsewhere last Saturday was first rate. Florida-breds went after it all afternoon long looking for a large slice of a seven-figure pie. Per usual, the Sunshine Millions program provided grist for fans and bettors alike.

One truly outstanding performance stuck out, that of the brilliant gelding X Y Jet. If he keeps developing like he has this winter, there could be lots of fireworks when/if he hooks up with Sprint champion Runhappy.

But to return to run as impressively or better than he did winning the Grade 3 Mr. Prospector Dec. 19--off shorter rest and after being challenged from the barrier by bullet-like El Botas to win as much the best--was jaw dropping.

Mexikoma deserves some props, too, taking the Sunshine Millions Classic in dramatic style over talented and speedy Mr Jordan in 1:48.19 despite getting caught in close between rivals on the first turn. Thanks to Johnny Velasquez’s quick reflexes, potential disaster was avoided.

BETS ‘N PIECES: Charming Kitten won the H. Allen Jerkens two-mile marathon yesterday; it was a repeat win for Todd Pletcher, who won the inaugural last year. Jimmy Jerkens presented the trophy to Ken and Sarah Ramsey… Did anyone note the irony in the fact that a practicing attorney, who also is a registered pharmacist, will become the Florida HBPA’s new executive director on Feb. 15? Just askin'.

Written by John Pricci

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